Kosovo Serbs brace for election in long shadow of political violence
Belgrade shields suspect in critic's murder as its allies in Kosovo are accused of dirty tricks
A ripped poster of leading Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic who was killed in a brazen drive-by shooting in Mitrovica. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty
Twenty months after he was gunned down in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, his legacy as a Serb moderate who criticised Belgrade and sought co-operation with Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority is being fought over before Sunday’s snap parliamentary election.
His allies saw the murder as a consequence of the vitriol aimed at Ivanovic by officials and media loyal to Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, and the Serb List party that does his bidding in Kosovo while deriding opponents as traitors.
When six bullets fired from a passing car killed Ivanovic outside his office in January 2018, his long-time ally Ksenija Bozovic was expected to continue his fight against a party that is accused of using threats and intimidation to retain its grip on Serb-inhabited northern Kosovo.
Yet on October 6th she will be on the ballot as a Serb List candidate, after a decision that shocked supporters, split the movement that she ran with Ivanovic, and confirmed many Serbs’ fear that resistance to Vucic and friends is futile.
“It got to the point where people stopped coming to see us because they felt so much pressure . . . from Serb List,” Bozovic says in an office where posters of Ivanovic still hang on the walls.
“Our decision to form this election coalition feels like it has made the atmosphere [in Mitrovica] less tense. People are coming in again and saying they support us. They see they’ll have someone to vote for.”
Bozovic says she agrees with Vucic and Serb List “that there should be unity among Serbs in Kosovo. We need to protect the national interests of Serbs. We can continue to disagree on local issues in the local assembly.”
“We’ll keep our own identity and stick to our positions. We won’t support policies that are failing . . . We want to change something. Let’s see if we can do it,” she told The Irish Times.
But critics see naivety, cynicism or fear behind Bozovic’s alliance with Serb List, and her decision prompted Ivanovic’s relatives to ask that his name not be used in the election battle.
When campaigning began last week, however, opposition candidate Rada Trajkovic stood outside Bozovic’s office, on the spot where Ivanovic was killed, and invoked his defiant spirit when launching her new Freedom coalition.
“They have to understand that Oliver, after his vicious assassination, is no longer just theirs,” local media quoted Trajkovic as saying in her apology to his family. “Oliver belongs to all people who despise crime and seek justice and freedom.”
“It is a great crime to kill a man just because he spoke out . . . but protecting a criminal is a crime to top all crimes,” she declared. “And I think those suspected of crimes against Oliver, unfortunately, are protected by the president of Serbia. ”
Bozovic’s defection appalled her allies because Serb List not only demonised Ivanovic for seeking compromise with Kosovars, but also includes among its leaders a shadowy businessman suspected of involvement in his murder.
Milan Radoicic, a vice-president of Serb List, fled arrest in Mitrovica last year and found refuge across the border in Serbia, where Vucic described him as the innocent victim of a plot by Kosovo police to pin Ivanovic’s assassination on Serbs.
Shortly before he was killed, Ivanovic named Radoicic as a key figure in the “informal centres of power” that he said were running northern Kosovo, controlling its economy and delivering votes for Serb List. Radoicic denies involvement in the murder or any other wrongdoing.
After a 1998-1999 war and Kosovo’s independence declaration in 2008, Belgrade continued to fund police and other “parallel structures” in mostly Serb northern Kosovo.
They were largely phased out under a 2013 EU-brokered deal, but Belgrade retained influence in the north through politicians and businessmen loyal to Vucic and Serb List, which runs all of Kosovo’s Serb-majority municipalities and in the last parliament held nine of the 10 seats reserved for Serbs.
“Because Serb deputies here follow the orders of Belgrade, foreign diplomats have to get Belgrade’s approval on all issues here,” explains Aleksandar Jablanovic, a founder of Serb List who now leads the opposition Party of Kosovo Serbs.
“But Serbs here gain nothing from that. If Serb List was less powerful then Vucic couldn’t decide things for Kosovo, and the international community wouldn’t feel the same need to talk to him about it.”
Control of councils in northern Kosovo, and cash flow from Serbia, give the party power over the population that critics say it abuses at election time.
“People who don’t really support Serb List will vote for it because they have to live here and they don’t want trouble,” says Jablanovic.
“People are getting calls and threats saying . . . they should just worry about having a job after the election, and that will only happen if they vote for Serb List.”
Jablanovic and other Kosovo Serb opposition leaders say they have copious evidence of Serb List’s dirty tricks – which the party dismisses as the empty claims of political losers and people in the pay of Kosovar politicians in Pristina.
“The campaign has only just started but about 30 of our supporters have already been sacked and hundreds have lost welfare payments from Serbia because they would not agree to vote for Serb List,” says Slobodan Petrovic, leader of the Independent Liberal Party (SLS).
“We have recordings of company bosses saying that if people don’t vote for Serb List or don’t leave the SLS then they will be fired. We have given this evidence to the prosecutors’ office and we hope they will act on it,” he adds.
‘Destroying and boycotting’
“Serb List is ruining the decent relations that have developed between Serbs and Albanians over the last 10 years. It’s an instrument that the Serbian government in Belgrade uses to obstruct things in Kosovo. We want to improve relations rather than destroying and boycotting everything.”
Four years to the day before Ivanovic was killed, Petrovic’s party colleague Dimitrije Janicijevic was shot dead outside his home in Mitrovica. No one has been brought to justice for either murder.
Jablanovic and Petrovic go everywhere with bodyguards. One Kosovo Serb politician, who did not want to be named, answered a question about his safety by opening the jacket of his suit to reveal a pistol tucked into his waistband.
“In a normal political battle you don’t kill candidates or burn their cars or sack their supporters from their jobs,” Jablanovic says.
“It is dangerous here, but you have two choices: take your family and move somewhere else or stay here and try to change the situation.”
These elections come as the West presses Pristina and Belgrade to normalise relations, and Vucic suggests that a land swap could help persuade Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s independence, despite fears that Serbs “left behind” in Kosovo may then flee the country.
Bozovic says the issue was on her mind when she spoke to Vucic about her unexpected alliance with Serb List: “I told him that Serbs should continue to live in Kosovo, their standard of living should improve, and Oliver’s killers must be found.”
“My biggest hope for these elections is that no one will get hurt,” she adds. “And in a normal, democratic society you wouldn’t have to wish for that.”